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Prisoners Eager to Voice Their Grievances

Times Staff Writer

The man limped to the front of the disheveled throng gathered behind double rolls of razor wire. He hoisted his prosthetic leg above his head.

“Where’s the freedom, Mr. Bush?” he shouted.

A dozen or so other inmates joined him, raising their crutches in protest.

This was the scene Wednesday at the now-notorious Abu Ghraib prison, the primary U.S. detention facility in Iraq.

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U.S. authorities, reeling from revelations of physical and sexual abuse at the lockup, invited the media Wednesday to the sprawling compound 25 miles west of Baghdad. The tour would be the outside world’s first look at the jail since the devastating scandal broke.

But the situation quickly spun out of military control as prisoners -- including the disabled in an area of the facility for injured inmates -- abandoned their outdoor tents in the midday sun and approached journalists. They were eager to voice their grievances, even from behind barbed wire.

Using a U.S.-issued megaphone, a man read from a legal pad brimming with accusations. “The problem of the Iraq prisoners is not only what is written in the news,” he said.

It was clear that accounts of the scandal had reached the nearly 4,000 prisoners held at this jail, which once included torture chambers used by Saddam Hussein’s interrogators.

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After the prisoners’ outburst, Army officials hastened to usher the members of the media back into a pair of buses, refusing to let journalists interview any inmates or photograph them, even though some prisoners appeared eager to talk. Officials cited prisoners’ rights under the Geneva Conventions.

“We respect international law,” said Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, the Army’s new detention chief in Iraq, fresh from his previous assignment of running the lockup at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Later, journalists were escorted to a cinder-block wing where the infamous photographs were taken of inmates being abused physically and sexually. Only a few prisoners -- 19 “high-risk” men and five women -- were being kept in these indoor facilities, known as the “hard site.”

The vast majority of Abu Ghraib’s inmates live in the rambling tent city, Camp Ganci, named after Peter J. Ganci, the New York Fire Department chief killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The wing was squeaky clean, but there was a disturbance: Several distraught female inmates on the second floor were crying out incessantly, pleading their innocence. Their shrieks echoed in the chambers.

“I have children,” said one, her arms extending beyond the bars. “I am not part of the resistance.”

Despite the apparent public relations setback, Army commanders tried to put a positive spin on the day. The key units implicated in the abuse have left Iraq, officials said.

A new hospital in a former warehouse includes a well-equipped trauma room and a recovery unit. Most of the patients, including a man whose left hand had been amputated, are victims of mortar attacks that strike the prison compound with regularity, launched from insurgent strongholds outside, along the road to Fallouja and the nation’s Sunni Muslim heartland.

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The facility was hit hardest April 20, when more than two dozen mortar rounds were lobbed into the jail, killing 22 detainees and injuring 91. After the attack, U.S. soldiers worked hard to save the lives of Iraqis.

“It’s like trying to be a soldier and a medical person at the same time,” said Col. Michael Oddi, a surgeon from Akron, Ohio, who heads the compound hospital. “You learn to do that.”

Nearby are the interrogation chambers where the base “Tiger Teams” -- composed of Army intelligence officers, interpreters and analysts -- question prisoners in rooms equipped with two-way mirrors.

The scandal has prompted Miller to announce that the military in Iraq would abandon controversial interrogation techniques, such as sleep deprivation, pain-inducing “stress positions” and hoods over detainees’ heads.

Miller said the International Committee of the Red Cross has been invited to establish a permanent presence at the camp. The previous administrators tried to hide prisoners from Red Cross scrutiny, according to an Army investigative report.

Meantime, commanders denied that pressure was still being put on military police to “soften up” detainees for interrogation -- a former policy that led to considerable abuse, the Army investigation concluded.

“We don’t encourage anybody to ‘soften up’ anybody,” declared Col. Foster Payne, who heads the military intelligence operation at Abu Ghraib.

Soldiers expressed outrage over the abuse uncovered at the facility.

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“I would like to apologize for our nation, for our military,” Miller told Western and Arab reporters gathered in a mess hall at the end of the day. “I will personally guarantee that this will not happen again.... We may make mistakes in the future, but they will not be mistakes of character.”

Commanders insisted that the camp, though Spartan, was humane and met international standards.

In the coming weeks, the military plans to move most prisoners to a new site on the grounds, a tent city to be named Camp Avalanche. Fans will be installed to provide some relief from the unrelenting Iraqi summer heat. Concrete mortar shelters will offer prisoners haven during attacks. Family visits will also be increased.

An effort to reduce the population is also being accelerated, officials said, citing a goal of reducing it to 1,500, compared with a high of 8,000 earlier this year. Commanders would like to speed the legal process and reduce the length of detentions, averaging four to six months.

“We believe we will be able to start to gain the trust and confidence of the Iraqi people,” Miller said. “Everyone bears a responsibility when we do an injustice.”


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